Disabato: As travel schedules continue to expand, high school baseball teams feeling the summer squeeze

The state of high school summer baseball isn’t good.

That was apparent this week after watching three days of games.

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Like the slow drip of a leaky faucet, the quality of competition continues to worsen every year.

There was a time when a majority of local high school teams — 42 to be exact — were involved in a season that concludes with the Phil Lawler Summer Classic.

This year, only 23 local teams participated. Prominent programs such as Sandburg, Oak Forest and Lincoln-Way Central no longer participate in the summer league. St. Laurence is the last local team standing, advancing to Monday’s Elite Eight after winning the Richards Regional.

The reason for the lower numbers, of course, is travel baseball.

After his team’s final game this week, I had one high school coach tell me he has coached his last summer league game.

High school coaches have grown tired of trying to arrange their summer schedules to accommodate the growing demands of travel baseball.

It used to be that travel was confined to competition from Thursday through Sunday, leaving high school teams to schedule games Monday through Wednesday.

But travel continues to expand, adding more days to the season and further squeezing out the high school summer league.

Parents shell out big bucks so their kid can play in front of college coaches. The result? Travel is a higher priority.

Richards coach Brian Wujcik is aware of the dilemma. In August, he takes over as president of the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association.

Wujcik told me one of the first orders of business on his agenda is the summer league.

“We have to address whether the summer season is worth salvaging,” Wujcik said. “If all the kids are going to choose travel tournaments over the summer season, are we demeaning the value of the Phil Lawler Summer Classic?

“Do we go the way of softball and say the summer is for the travel teams?”

Wujcik is a traditionalist. He’s been at Richards for 26 seasons and has 528 wins. He loves to coach and teach his players the right way to play the game, be it in the spring or during the summer.

But he’s also a realist. Travel baseball isn’t going away. And it’s unlikely to accommodate the needs of high school baseball — there’s too much money to be made.

On the positive side, no one can dispute the exposure to college coaches the travel landscape provides.

“We weren’t getting scholarships to Tennessee and West Virginia when I was playing high school,” Wujcik said. “But not every kid is a Division I player. Families have to decide what’s best for their kids.

“Ultimately, if a kid gets a college scholarship by playing in a travel tournament, I guess it’s worth not playing on their high school summer team. But if a kid goes and plays four games and there are no college coaches and all the family does is spend money to stay in a hotel, is that worth it?”

Wujcik also pointed out another part of that cost.

“Some parents are paying $2,500 for their kid to play travel ball,” he said. “We’re charging $30 to play in the summer. My biggest concern for my players is what type of instruction they’re getting in travel. We have plenty of travel all-stars.

“I don’t want to hear that you threw a no-hitter. I want to see it.”

Which is why Wujcik is resistant to waving the white flag entirely on the summer season.

He believes there’s value to playing for your high school in the dog days of June and July.

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Twitter @disabato

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